Five of the eight companies that took to the stage at the 2020 Fierce Founders Bootcamp Pitch Competition Wednesday were focused on the medtech or health-care spheres.

But it was one with an environmental pedigree that ultimately emerged as the event’s big winner: Toronto’s RainStick, which has developed a revolutionary shower that reduces water and energy consumption, is $75,000 richer today, after co-founder and CEO Alisha McFetridge convinced the panel of four judges at the Tannery Event Centre that it has what it takes to move its product further along and succeed.

“It feels amazing, it’s very exciting,” said McFetridge afterward. “But there’s a little bit of disbelief, too, to be honest.”

The health-care cadre didn’t walk away empty handed. The judges hived off a $25,000 portion of the overall $100,000 in prize money for a Kitchener- and New York-based company called HyIvy Health, which makes a suite of doctor-programmable sexual rehabilitation products for women who have pelvic ailments and cancers, aiming to improve sexual recovery after diagnosis, treatment or surgery.

“Oh gosh, it’s overwhelming,” said HyIvy Health CEO and founder Rachel Bartholomew when asked how it felt to earn her cheque. “Your heart drops; it also swells at the same time.”

Fierce Founders is a Communitech program that aims to help women-led tech companies accelerate their businesses and is backed by the Business Development Bank of Canada, Google and the governments of Canada and Ontario. The eight pitching companies emerged from a cohort of 25 that had taken part in the Fierce Founders Bootcamp, six days of intensive assistance and learning delivered in two three-day stages through late January and late February.

Judges had their hands full Wednesday. One of them, former Fierce Founders program manager Danielle Graham, who is now Principal with the Toronto venture capital firm Dream Maker Ventures, said “I would be willing to be put on record saying this is the highest quality Fierce Founders Bootcamp I’ve ever seen.

“The quality of the top eight, as well as what I’ve heard from some of the other companies in the cohort, is exceptional and it’s great to see so many high-quality companies coming from this region, as well as broader women-led companies.”

Other judges included Amy Hastings, Legal Advisor; Rebecca Tascona, Regional President, South Western Ontario, BMO; and Steven Woods, Google’s Senior Director of Engineering and based at Google’s Waterloo Region office.

McFetridge and Bartholomew each described how valuable the Fierce Founders program was to their development as entrepreneurs and additionally had praise for the support they received from the other participants.

“I was blown away by everyone who was part of the program, all the way from the entrepreneurs that took part, to the advisors, the mentors, the people who were coaching us through,” said McFetridge.

“It was an incredible experience. And I have to say, I didn’t think that I would actually be coming home as the winner of this year’s Fierce Founders program because there were so many amazing ladies that were part of this.”

Bartholomew was moved to tears on stage as she described the medical battles that she has faced in the past, an ordeal which, in part, moved her to start her company.

“So I ended up, you know, shedding a little bit of tears,” she said afterward, “but [the [program] has just been so great. I mean, the [other participants], they’ve been so supportive.

“And I think that’s the biggest thing – having them to connect with. I made friends for a lifetime here. And yes, the money is great, but the connections and the network is equally fantastic.”

Wednesday’s event was standing room only and was live-streamed, as well. Despite its success, Lisa Cashmore, Communitech Vice-President, Start and Scale, who oversees the Fierce Founders programs, wants to see more progress for women entrepreneurs and for women in the workplace in general.

“When I look at our portfolio of companies, as hard as we try by supporting events like this, the ratio of female founders to males is still something way below what makes me feel comfortable,” said Cashmore.

“So the fight’s not over. We have to keep supporting programs like this to make sure that we keep moving that number. 

“When we see the breakdown of leadership teams, so few women are represented in those leadership roles. We need to continue to push for diversity both with the founding teams and at the C-level of an organization.”

Cashmore Wednesday additionally announced a change to the Fierce Founders program. The Fierce Founders Accelerator, a six-month program for women entrepreneurs, has been renamed the Fierce Founders Intensive Track and the program will no longer be bound by a set time frame. Participating companies will continue to receive hands-on support from growth coaches, and now the strongest growth plans will qualify for matching seed funds of $50,000 or $100,000 from the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario.

Other companies participating in Wednesday’s pitch competition included: 

BenchWork, a Toronto-based startup that matches fashion manufacturers with vetted suppliers; MedsCures, a Kitchener-based company that aims to improve opioid and medication security through the use of a smart pill dispenser; Vidal Home Care, a Toronto company that links vetted caregivers with people who need in-home care; Wish & Give, a Toronto company that helps party and event planners raise money for charities; AiimSense, a Waterloo company intent on making a portable brain scanner for early diagnosis of strokes; and SaluTech, a Toronto company seeking to improve the treatment of patients with heart irregularities.

Alisha McFetridge, third from left, and Rachel Bartholomew, third from right, celebrate their respective first- and second-place finishes at the $100,000 Fierce Founders Pitch Competition. Lending a hand with the cheques are the event’s judges. - (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)